Old gnews is bad gnews for United Airlines

An amusing story today about a cascade of errors. Amusing, that is, if you weren’t a United Airlines shareholder. United’s stock plummeted more than 75% in Monday’s trading after an erroneous report on the company’s bankruptcy.

The report came from a December 2002 story on the Sun-Sentinel’s Web site. The story found its way from the Sun-Sentinel to Google News to an investment research firm to the Bloomberg terminals which sit atop many traders’ desks. The Tribune company, publisher of the Sun-Sentinel, claims that the story was clearly labeled as an archive story. Google and Tribune are pointing fingers at each other.

I’m not sure that I buy the Sun-Sentinel’s claims. It’s archives aren’t indexed by Google in the same way that archives of papers like The New York Times are. Archive pages are very clearly differentiated. It’s also unlikely that an archive story would make the “Most viewed” promotional box. Google’s account of the incident is more believable.

I do have to question a reporter who would republish such a major story without any attempt to verify it. It’s one thing for an algorithm to make such mistakes; entirely another for a reporter to do so.

Ironically, this occured on the same day that Google announced that it is digitizing the archives of newspapers in a blog post titled “Bringing history online, one newspaper at a time.” 

(Yes, that’s an ’80s cultural reference in the headline.)

More on: Google, journalism

Disclosure: I interned at the Sun-Sentinel in college. If you search their archives, you can find the stories I wrote. These stories aren’t in Google’s index. I don’t think I wrote any market-moving stories.

About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is Senior Director of product at Amazon (Audible). Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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